LIANE HANSEN, host:
Classical musician Lukas Foss died last week. He was widely admired for his adventurous spirit and keen wit. His career spanned seven decades, numerous awards and 11 honorary doctorates. Lara Pellegrinelli has this appreciation.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: In 1939, Lukas Foss went to study at Yale with composer Paul Hindemith - and nearly got thrown out. Hindemith told the precocious 17 year old, I can't teach anyone who wants to know everything, but who doesn't want to follow anything.
As a young composer in the 1940s, Foss' work was neo-classical, full of lyricism and his appreciation for Stravinsky and Bach.
(Soundbite of piano playing)
By the mid 1950s, Foss said he was envious of jazz and its apparent freedoms. So he tried a kind of controlled improvisation.
(Soundbite of music)
These styles and others he tried may appear to have nothing in common, but they were born of the same restless creativity and built on the same foundation as his conducting, as Foss told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1987.
(Soundbite of clip, WHYY's Fresh Air in 1987)
Mr. LUKAS FOSS (Composer, Conductor and Pianist): Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Wagner - that was my home. I never left it. I was always close to that music. As a matter of fact, in my most avant-garde days, I needed it. See the best thing is to have one big foot in the past and a big foot in the future.
PELLEGRINELLI: Home was originally Berlin, where he was born Lukas Fuchs in 1922. Foss was a prodigy, who began playing keyboard as a toddler and composing at the age of seven. His parents left a Germany that was falling under the sway of the Nazis, and they eventually wound up in Philadelphia.
Foss became a student at the Curtis Institute at the age of 15. After teaching at UCLA, Foss moved on to become the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1963. JoAnn Falletta is the orchestra's current music director and worked as Foss' associate conductor at the Milwaukee Symphony.
Ms. JOANN FALLETTA (Music Director, Buffalo Philharmonic): He brought with him this appetite for new music and for seeing music in the world in a different way. And he completely changed the Buffalo Philharmonic. He put us right at the center of the new music world, to the shock of the audience probably, to the confusion of the orchestra at times. But he never gave up.
PELLEGRINELLI: Foss created a similar stir in 1971 when he took over the Brooklyn Philharmonia, little more than a community orchestra back then. In his first season, he introduced marathon concerts - then highly unusual, including one of modern composers. Audiences and sponsors fled, but again, Foss didn't give up. And the renamed Brooklyn Philharmonic won them back, in part with a series devoted to contemporary music.
Mr. FOSS: I don't believe that it's my business to shock an audience. I think that I like to surprise them, which means open a door for them.
PELLEGRINELLI: Foss gradually lightened his conducting duties to make more time for composing in the 1980s. But for the last year and a half, his struggle with Parkinson's disease made it too difficult to continue.
Lukas Foss died last Sunday after suffering a heart attack in his New York City apartment. He was 86 years old. For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.
HANSEN: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.